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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Orlando at the Brazen Threshold

Isabel Colegate

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To purchase Orlando at the Brazen Threshold

Title: Orlando at the Brazen Threshold
Author: Isabel Colegate
Genre: Novel
Written: 1971
Length: 147 pages
Availability: in: Orlando King - US
in: Orlando King - UK
in: Orlando King - Canada
  • With an Introduction by Melissa Harrison
  • Also published together with Orlando King and Agatha, as Orlando King, a collection previously also published as The Orlando Trilogy

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Our Assessment:

B : a fine final-chapter-of-a-life novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph A 15/7/1971 Elizabeth Berridge
Sunday Times* . 14/7/2020 Johanna Thomas-Corr

[* review of entire trilogy]

  From the Reviews:
  • "Thoroughly enjoyable and written with welcome elegance (.....) At times I was reminded of Anthony Powell. There is a similar measured after-dinner style about the writing, and an unhurried, disarming gathering-up of loose ends." - Elizabeth Berridge, Daily Telegraph

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Orlando at the Brazen Threshold is the second in Isabel Colegate's The Orlando Trilogy. Patterned on Sophocles' Theban plays, this is the Oedipus at Colonus-installment, and opens with protagonist Orlando King in exile. While in Orlando King Orlando was last seen announcing that: "After the War I shall go back to the island" -- in the Gulf of Morbihan on the coast of Brittany, the place where he was raised by the former academic King --, Orlando apparently quickly learned that you can't go home again: "He had hoped much of the return , and his expectations were disappointed". The challenge of making the place habitable in the tough post-war years was too much for him and he abandoned it. Instead, we find him now, in 1951, having settled in Tuscany -- his Colonus.
       The title is taken from one of the Jebb translations of Oedipus at Colonus, where early on the Stranger explains to Oedipus about this threshold to the nether world:

This whole place is sacred; awful Poseidon holds it, and therein is the fire-fraught god, the Titan Prometheus; but as for the spot whereon thou treadest, 'tis called the Brazen Threshold of this land, the stay of Athens; and the neighbouring fields claim yon knight Colonus for their primal lord, and all the people bear his name in common for their own. Such, thou mayest know, stranger, are these haunts, not honoured in story, but rather in the life that loves them.
       (The more recent (1994) Hugh Lloyd-Jones translation in the Loeb Classical Library series translates χαλκόπους ὀδός as: "Brazen-footed" ("the spot where you are treading is called the Brazen-footed"); Jebb also translated the words as: "the bronze threshold". The double-meaning of 'brazen' is of course nice -- except that few are presumably aware it also means 'made of brass'; in anticipating this volume, the Kirkus review of Orlando King added a parenthetical: "hopefully a title change" in looking ahead to this one (though , as it turned out, no stand-alone US edition was in fact then published).)
       When the story opens it is spring and Orlando's daughter Agatha, now seventeen years old, has joined him; she is studying Italian while there, and ambitiously plans to pursue medical studies when she returns to England. She also pines for cousin Henry -- the son of Orlando's brother-in-law Conrad (with Orlando having turned guardianship of daughters Agatha and Imogen over to Conrad when he left England years earlier) -- although Henry is romantically tied to the lovely Caroline. Father and daughter, who have not seen each other in years, have a bit of a difficult time connecting; in a letter to half-brother Paul, Agatha observes: "The trouble is he's such an unintimate person. Perhaps I am too".
       Provided with a stash of King's diaries, Orlando has learned a bit more about the man that raised him -- revealing that there was much he was not aware of. Orlando's isolation is not quite as great as island-dwelling King's was, especially once Agatha joins him, but there are striking similarities; among the lessons Orlando takes from the diaries of the man who raised him are to battle the despondency that so easily creeps into such a life. (It's a bit disappointing that Colegate does not allow for more reflection here: the memory of King and his youth occupy Orlando some early on, but there's not very much follow-through; it feels like a too-little explored part of his past and life.)
       While Orlando King covers, in the main, more than a decade, the action in Orlando at the Brazen Threshold is largely limited to a few months in 1951. Orlando lets himself be convinced to briefly visit England -- to weigh in on a family business matter, pitting Orlando's stepsons (and half-brothers) Stephen, staidly running the family firm, and Paul, who has much greater ambitions for it, against each other -- and, while he's there, he invites Henry and a bunch of his friends to come visit him in the summer in Tuscany, which they then do, making for considerable bustle at Orlando's work-in-progress property. Given how closely Colegate follows the outlines of the Sophocles-stories, it comes as no surprise that at the end of the summer Orlando breathes his last.
       If Orlando King skipped almost lightly across the years, Orlando at the Brazen Threshold includes many much longer-held and closely focused scenes; a single day Orlando spends in London, culminating in a party Paul takes him to (and where he even runs into (the: "rather short of brains", as Conrad observes) Imogen, who has snuck away from school in the dead of night), takes up a good part of the story, for example.
       Paul has married well -- the beautiful Serena (as she now calls herself), daughter of successful industrialist and entrepreneur Daintry -- and it is Paul that seeks to convince the family to ease brother Stephen out of the family firm and follow Daintry's greater ambitions. Orlando, and Conrad, both ultimately agree, and Paul will come to take over, but neither brother will be satisfied by the arrangement, and both will abruptly and self-destructively cut short their futures. If Stephen isn't much of a figure in the story, Paul is -- but he continues to have various issues to deal with. Drunk at the party they then go to, he confesses to Orlando that he is (still) homosexual (to which his stepfather responds: "'I thought you'd given it up,' said Orlando as if they were talking about golf") and also that he is working for the Communists. Neither fact comes much to bear on the story, but by the time of Agatha will have entirely upended his life.
       Orlando also learns of Agatha's longing for her cousin, the rather flighty Henry -- a disappointment to his stolid father --, understandably worrying about that situation. Still deeply involved with Caroline, Henry admits that: "I've always been frightened of Agatha although I admire her enormously" -- and can't help but think that: "I think that she'll probably kill me one day" .....
       As Orlando exclaims at one point, "What a family !".
       A bit too generous with his invitations to come visit him in Italy, Orlando's house then draws quite a crowd there when summer comes, but it all goes reasonably well enough. Agatha is pleased to see that Henry at least doesn't share a room with Caroline, and meanwhile also draws the attentions of a Hal -- though not much more comes of it than a clearly ill-fated not-quite-romance. By the end of the summer, when Caroline leaves ahead of Henry, it would seem that that couple is breaking up -- with Orlando inserting himself into the situation in the almost effortless manner he has always had (if rarely practiced for many years now).
       Much of Orlando at the Brazen Threshold involves the next generation, seeking out their freedoms but constrained by, among other things, an economy still in recovery -- among the issues they have to deal with is the limited amount of currency that can be taken abroad, preventing even the wealthiest from spending a great deal of time visiting the continent. The social scene and partying is closely described and recounted, and Colegate captures this time of opportunity (and also some of the lack thereof) very well -- but this novel doesn't nearly achieve Orlando King's sweep. Most notably, unlike that previous volume, this is almost entirely the story of a certain set; unlike in Orlando King, there's little room here for working class or even just true middle class (of the times) life here, and with that the novel loses some of its depth; in this respect, at least, it feels terribly much more one-note (not that Colegate doesn't play it very well).
       We get a reflective Orlando here. His eyesight compromised, he can barely make out the world around him any more -- though this also allows for a forwardness that is almost comic, as he goes around at that London party peering closely at people to such a degree that he is reprimanded by one of the guests, who finds: "I don't think blindness is any excuse for bad manners". But his attitude has become one of laissez-faire, not much bothered by either the impression he makes or how those around him act either; even wayward Imogen is just given a boost over the school walls when he drops her off late at night, rather than more formally reprimanded. If always somewhat philosophical, in his own particular way, he now chooses not to be particularly involved (though this is still something more than the cutting himself completely off that he had tried earlier, when he had abandoned England and family after the war). Orlando has already had two heart attacks and is in poor health and knows he might not have much longer; if not darkly fatalistically, Orlando sees his place is no longer truly in the active life around him -- but he's content to float in the same pool, as it were, for the time being too.
       In one of his letters to Agatha, Paul writes about Orlando: "I think he's a deeply and hopelessly disillusioned man -- I don't think he cares in the slightest whether any of us lives or dies", but the tragic hero is a bit more complex than that. Late on in the story, Orlando does turn back to King's diaries, finding there the man's pain writ large, which he had been completely unaware of at the time:
     More and more there are days on which I can't love. I have nothing to love with. I am not a real person. I AM NOT.
       Orlando's remaining struggle isn't quite of this order -- for one, love, in its most basic forms, has always come easily to him (if arguably never with true passion); indeed, it will again here, in one last, deep fling -- but there is a similar sense of unbridgeable isolation: he too is, like King (if also more comfortably), an island. And here, while Orlando doesn't quite sleepwalk through the novel, there is an even more pronounced sense of apartness, as he hovers at this particular (final) threshold of his life's journey. The bustle and then the comings and goings, especially of the younger set that crowds into his home in Tuscany, makes for the illusion of activity, but Orlando remains more bystander. So also his trip to London: while his opinion is important to the outcome of what amounts to the struggle between Paul and his brother, he isn't really needed for it (and he also absents himself from discussion of the next steps as soon as the matter is settled).
       A surprising final fling -- itself arguably also a betrayal, and, in its ripple effects, ultimately perhaps not the best thing in how it will effect Agatha's future -- allows for a sort of final satisfaction. Orlando's life has always been completely determined by fate, but ultimately he finds his peace with it. Practically his final words happen to be:
I'm so reconciled to everything. I'm probably even reconciled to dying, as long as it's quick.
       Orlando at the Brazen Threshold is very much a final chapter for Orlando, and successful as such. Yet as in Oedipus at Colonus, the story doesn't end there, and the ways he's failed his family -- stepsons and daughters, especially -- will clearly play out soon enough. As is, the novel closes with Agatha in anticipation -- "She would have waited indefinitely" -- and then taking that the biggest of the fateful steps that will decide her own future, then chronicled in the final installment of the trilogy, Agatha.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 December 2020

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Orlando at the Brazen Threshold: Reviews [* review of entire trilogy]: Other books by Isabel Colegate under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Isabel Colegate was born in 1931.

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© 2020-2021 the complete review

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